For the second time in two years, Apple has expanded the footprint of its offices at Two Union Square in Seattle, Early last year they expanded to make room for the staff from Turi, an AI and machine learning startup that was based there. Earlier this month, GeekWire broke the news that Apple is taking over another floor, growing again to 70,000 square feet of space in the building. This should give them room for between 350 to 475 people.
Seattle has become a hub for machine learning and AI research in recent years, so it makes sense for Apple to be a part of the action. The University of Washington has a well-known computer science program and the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence is also located there. Microsoft is just down the road and is expanding heavily into AI. Amazon, Facebook and Google also have significant presences in the area, as well.
Because of all this corporate concentration, Seattle has become a major hotbed for recruiting talented workers in the areas of AI, machine learning, and smarthome tech, so it is essential for Apple to have a major presence if they ever hope to close the gap between them and their competitors. In this sense, stories like these are good news for Apple fans. However, it’s hard to put too much stock in them when you consider where they rank among their competitors at the moment. While Apple’s expansion in Seattle may be good news, it still feels like news that should have come three or four years ago.
Apple’s sudden burst of ambition is late to the game. We already have ample proof of this in the lack of progress with Siri as their competitors have all gained various levels of momentum with their intelligent assistants and AI initiatives. So how much will be enough to make a difference that WE can start to see? Apple has been on a major AI acquisition and spending spree over the last two years, and has actually racked up a couple of impressive hires and academic achievements. However, none of what they have done has moved the needle in a tangible way yet. When is the break point? When does the tide turn?
Apple can’t turn back time. There is no disputing the fact that their leadership going back to the Steve Jobs-era made mistakes in how they handled services and AI and machine learning. However, the only the thing they can do now is move forward. From that perspective, their fast expansion is, if nothing else, a sign that they understand that they are behind and need to move now.
Moving fast alone isn’t necessarily a positive for Apple, though. The most important factor to make this rapid growth work to their advantage is leadership. This has been a big problem for Apple in the past, but there is reason to believe the situation has finally changed. This is where Apple’s recent coup in hiring John Giannandrea away from Google comes in. His team made a massive impact across all of Google’s services under his leadership, so Apple now has something that has been sorely missing. They have a leader who has done this before. The fact that he will be reporting directly to Tim Cook tells me that he is unquestionably the leader for AI and machine learning at Apple.
How will all of this play out? Good question. I ask myself the same thing every time a story about an Apple acquisition or expansion in the field of AI and machine learning hits. For all the ones we have seen over the past year and a half, we still don’t have that watershed moment where we see the tide start to turn yet. So for now, we are left to wait until WWDC, and hope that this growing team in Seattle has something really good to show us. Last year I had little hope that we would see much change in Siri or other AI-related areas during the Keynote. Thanks to the hiring of Mr Giannandrea, I have a little more this time around. We should know a while lot more in just over a month.